It's no secret that the casual game market thrives on repetition. For every new experience, there are 9,184 clones (I looked it up), and eventually even the most hardcore hidden object finder is going to get bored and take up macramé. Great for the friendship bracelet industry, not so good for the starving game developers. Eventually, they'll all be out on the street with piles of colored beads, offering passers-by the chance to match three beads together in exchange for food.
And that's where PlayPond comes in. With DragonStone, the studio bravely mashed a marble-grouping game with a shoot-em-up, spray-painted it with a medieval fantasy theme, and literally turned the whole thing on its head. The result is an exciting and perilously addictive experiment, with the friendly face and high production values of a casual game.
Your hero is Baldric, an armor-clad oaf in love with a princess. She loves him too, and since we can't have peasants marrying princesses, the king sends Baldric on a dangerous quest to retrieve the fabled DragonStone. The idea being that Baldric will perish in the jaws of a dragon and leave the princess single, in case any wealthy bachelors come along with a spare fiefdom. The story is gobble-de-gook, told with tongue in cheek, an excuse to send you through 8 beautifully illustrated lands containing 80 levels of carefully sculpted puzzle action.
Your weapon is a mouse-controlled magical bow that shoots two kinds of ammunition. Click the left button to launch colored stones. If you form a group with at least 3 stones of the same color, they will disappear. This is not unlike Zuma or Bust-a-Move, but in DragonStone, when you eliminate all the marbles attached to a rock outcropping or pile of earth, the whole formation crumbles away, letting you advance to the next part of the level.
Sometimes destroying a piece of scenery in this way will release prizes, which you can catch with your bow. Coins can be spent on upgrades at certain places in the game, while other objects give you extra lives or restore your health. Some objects, like spiky balls and poison flasks, can harm you and should be avoided. All the while, the puzzle is slowly advancing, and if any stone, platform, or pillar reaches the top of the screen, you'll lose a life and have to restart the level.
Clicking the right mouse button fires arrows, which are good for destroying targets and fighting the menagerie of creatures that will be attacking you. Getting struck by too many vampire bats and fire balls is another good way to lose a life. Your enemies range from giant spiders to surprisingly terrifying dragons, and seeing what new beast will come after you next is a major incentive to keep beating levels.
Early in the game you'll also learn about your magic attack. If you hold down the right button for a moment, you'll unleash a marble-vaporizing sonic blast that can save your bacon if you've messed up part of a puzzle, or if a particular baddie is too much for you. Later on, you'll be able to purchase powerful screen-clearing spells that can be used only once per level.
Analysis: Perhaps the smartest choice PlayPond made was to position the bow at the top of the screen, and let your marbles fall into the puzzles according to gravity. This means they can design levels with slopes and valleys, and groups of one color of marble supported by groups of another color. If you place a stone well, you can often set off a giant chain reaction and make your life significantly easier. Of course, later in the game, that same chain reaction can release waves of stinging thorns for you to dodge, so you can never rest easy, even when you've solved a puzzle correctly. That combination of reflexes and analysis means that DragonStone will be rewarding for players who like to work their whole brain, but it might find a smaller audience than more specialized games.
At first, the marriage of shooter and puzzler seems unnecessary, even awkward. Most of the time, you can take a moment to clear out any monsters that appear, and then go back to solving the marble puzzle un-interrupted. It's like playing two separate games. But when creatures start walking around on the puzzles and sniping at you from behind indestructible blocks, everything comes together. It really feels like you're laying siege to a hostile den of mythical creatures, albeit in an abstract, color-matching way.
Reinforcing the illusion is the excellent background artwork. Levels have multiple layers of scrolling scenery, which creates a terrific sense of open space. The music and sound effects are at worst unobtrusive and at best wonderfully atmospheric.
Are there problems? Well, it's a little strange in a game with so much dodging that your magic bow is so large. It takes up a third of the horizontal playing space, so avoiding attacks usually means just hurling it all the way to the left or the right. It's easier to catch coins with a huge target like that, of course, and that's probably what the designers were thinking. But it's a little rich to expect players to dodge multiple projectiles with the massive thing.
More inconvenient is the fact that you can only see whatever marble is currently loaded in your bow. There's no way to see what color is coming up next, so you have to take a moment for your brain to process each new color before you fire. Sometimes when you're in a tight situation, you'll long to have some advance warning.
But despite those hiccups in the design, DragonStone is compulsively playable. There are dozens upon dozens of clever puzzles, featuring a variety of special objects. You'll encounter explosive barrels, color-shifting Medusa heads, treasure chests, ice blocks; the list goes on and on. Unlike many casual games that rely on random layouts to create replay value, PlayPond has simply created a huge amount of content. 80 levels is a lot, when each level is a long series of challenges itself. Add in multiple endings, a screen-full of awards for completing various tasks, more silly puns than you can shake a stick at, and two different difficulty levels; and you have a complete package.
DragonStone takes a lot of risks, but they have paid off in a unique, epic adventure that never takes itself too seriously. Well worth a look-see.